Most dairy farmers around the Great Lakes region milk their cows all year long. It brings in a steady paycheck and ensures a steady flow of milk to manufacturing plants. Now a small but growing number of farmers give their cows a break during the coldest months. It’s a technique called seasonal dairying. Its supporters say it’s gentler on the cows. It’s easier on the environment. And it gives small dairy farms a future in an industry that’s growing ever bigger. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s David Sommerstein reports:
Most dairy farmers around the Great Lakes region milk their cows all year long. It brings in a steady
paycheck and ensures a steady flow of milk to manufacturing plants. Now a small but growing
number of farmers give their cows a break during the coldest months. It’s a technique called seasonal
dairying. Its supporters say it’s gentler on the cows. It’s easier on the environment. And it gives
small dairy farms a future in an industry that’s growing ever bigger. The Great Lakes Radio
Consortium’s David Sommerstein reports:
It’s a chilly winter day in the northern New York town of Denmark. Kevin Sullivan strides into
the barn where his 60 cows munch quietly on their day’s feed.
“In the winter we’re pretty much conventional farmers.”
On conventional farms, cows stay in the barn all year long. The farmer trucks hay and grain into
the barn to feed them. But Sullivan is a grazier. His cows munch on pasture grasses from April
to October. And when they’re inside for winter, he “dries the cows off” for a couple months.
That means they don’t give milk until they start calving in the spring. Sullivan says he first read
an article about what’s called “seasonal dairying” ten years ago.
“I started thinking about it then and I kinda ran it past my wife and she laughed at me and said
‘y’know it’ll never work.'”
The problem with the seasonal system is dairy farmers are used to relying on their monthly milk
check to pay bills. No milk, no check. That took some getting used to.
“The first year was kind of scary ’cause you don’t really have any income for a couple months in
the wintertime but after we made it through that first year, I knew it was going to work pretty
The reason it works is outside.
Sullivan zips up his jacket and walks out to the barnyard. Unlike most farms, there’s not much
mud, just acres of thick green grass peeking through a dusting of snow.
“Once you get a sod built up like this, you can bring out your cows, I mean, the cows could be out
here today and they’re not going to hurt this pasture at all.”
Grazing is the key to seasonal dairying. You time when your cows give birth to calves and
produce their best milk to coincide with spring and early summer. That’s when pastures grow
the most nutritious grass. Sullivan says it’s a cow’s natural cycle.
Cows were made to eat grass. A lot of people forgot about that, I guess. I would say the two biggest things that
harm a cow is grain and concrete and a lot of guys push grain and the cows are on concrete all
the while but by kicking the cows outside and letting them be on the sod and letting them eat the
grass, you can get rid of about 90% of your cow problems.
In the pasture, they’re less susceptible to foot diseases than cows in a muddy barnyard. And
because grazing cows roam many acres, their manure is spread naturally and fertilizes the land.
A grazing farm typically has less erosion, uses fewer pesticides, and is less polluting to nearby
creeks than a conventional farm, where cows are confined to a small area and the farmer has to
dispose of tons of manure.
The method is easier on the animals and the land. And often easier on the farmer’s wallet too. A
study by the American Farmland Trust finds seasonal dairying can be an economically viable
alternative to conventional farming, especially for small farms like Kevin Sullivan’s. But only one or two percent of farms in the U.S. are seasonal. Brian Petrucci directs the American Farmland
Trust’s farm division.
“At some point in the last twenty years, it was decided that the only way to farm in this country was to get big or
Under the tutelage of Ag school extensions, farm herds have swelled from the hundreds to the
tens of thousands. State and federal environmental agencies have had to create new regulations to
contain all the waste the farms generate. At the same time, thousands of small farms have gone
out of business.
Petrucci says seasonal dairying can help reverse the trend. But it’s slow to catch on in part
because the agriculture industry – the companies that supply the farmers – often doesn’t benefit.
“Dairy graziers and others who are operating on a smaller scale are not the consumers of feed
stuffs and farm supplies and farm equipment that the larger farmers are.”
There’s another reason, says Pete Barney of the Cornell Cooperative Extension in St. Lawrence
County, New York. It’s rooted in dairy history in this country.
“Milk plants, milk companies wanted a year-round, constant supply of milk, so now farmers bred
animals so they were coming in periodically throughout the whole year so they could keep a constant
flow of milk going.”
A different system can work on a large scale. Brian Petrucci says in some countries all dairy
farms are seasonal and grazing operations.
Back on the Sullivan farm, Kevin Sullivan says seasonal dairying is also good for his family. The
two months off from milking means more time for his kids, even a vacation, a rare thing among
“Farming is, you know, daily grind. Most people get locked into it and they don’t realize that there is
something besides going to the barn and doing chores every day. It’s really kind of opened up
our life a little bit to enjoy our hobbies in the wintertime at least.”
Sullivan’s business is good. He’s invested in an ice cream factory with some neighbors. He says
thanks to grazing and seasonal dairying, his fields are clean and green, his cows are healthy, and
his farm is thriving when so many other small farms are up for sale.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m David Sommerstein.